Gifting Economies

Despite permaculture being arguably one of Australia’s most significant intellectual ‘exports’ of the past forty years, there is almost no understanding or acknowledgement of it in Australian mainstream publishing or media.


Non-market socialism means a money-less, market-less, wage-less, class-less and state-less society that also aims to satisfy everyone’s basic needs while power and resources are shared in just and ‘equal’ ways.


Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman, editors of Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies

 Until I became a permaculturalist and a keen student of traditional Aboriginal economics, I probably would have dismissed the sentiments expressed in the quote above as utopian wishfulness. In a highly urbanised and prosperous country with so many expressions of material entitlement life without money seems a flaky ideal. It is, however, little wonder that despite its Australian editors and focus Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman’s international anthology, which features strongly the Australian concept of permaculture, found a willing publisher in London. In the United Kingdom over the last decade numerous towns and cities have been modelling new socioeconomic alternatives, including new forms of currency (the Totnes pound is the most celebrated example) and non-monetary exchange. Having driven the industrial revolution full steam from the outset, ignoring Malthusian logic, that country now finds itself an economic basket case. Within just 300 years it has overextended and overpopulated its land base to such an extent that it is now dependent on global imports for almost every resource, most notably food, making the mastermind of industrialised countries extremely vulnerable to global economic and climate crises, especially in an era that marks the end of cheap fossil fuels.

As a result of the United Kingdom’s poor economic status, the Transitions Towns movement has been promoting the idea of resource relocalisation, which necessarily includes ecological restoration, community food systems, community-owned renewable energy and the slow dismantling of the dominant economic hegemony.  In developing the Transition Towns concept in the 1990s, sustainability pioneer Rob Hopkins was influenced by permaculture co-originator David Holmgren’s work, namely his text Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability (2002). Hopkins understood from Holmgren that it was in the household and community economies that resilience to global crises could be found. Holmgren’s work has been published in many countries and has influenced ecological and social sustainability practices across every continent. In Australia, however, it remains largely self-published and undervalued. Despite permaculture being arguably one of Australia’s most significant intellectual ‘exports’ of the past forty years, there is almost no understanding or acknowledgement of it in Australian mainstream publishing or media. Again, this is due in part to material entitlement―a never-before-seen and never-to-have-again comfort zone―and what I call hypertechnocivility: the total investment in technology at the expense of ecological knowledge.

My household has been practising what Holmgren calls ‘voluntarily living within a depression economy’ for many years, reducing waste and spending, applying permaculture principles and living a form of creative frugality on less than a taxable income. I therefore find the main premise of Life Without Money―building fair and sustainable economies―not at all wishful in a pejorative sense, but manageable, achievable and critically necessary in preparing for the unavoidable and ensuing crises: economic contraction, climate change, energy descent, greater social division and aggregating ecological ‘overshoot’ and estrangement: in short, the results of hypertechnocivility, or progress-capitalism, peaking.

It is important to note that in Life Without Money the editors give equal weight to theory and practice. The first half of the book is dedicated to more theoretical works and the second to more practical responses and experimentation. The editors stress, ‘All of the theoretical discussions are quite practical. Scholars who are also activists have written them. As a movement of both theory and practice seeded at the time of 1973–74 global oil crisis, permaculture features strongly throughout the book. In a recent discussion with Holmgren I asked him whether a remarriage of theory and practice is necessary. There has certainly been a lot of talk about this since the 1970s, but since then limits to growth warnings have been abjectly ignored, anthropogenic waste has dramatically increased, and so too social division. I asked Holmgren whether he felt that in order for our culture to prepare for financial collapse, energy descent (a term Holmgren coined) and climate chaos (a term coined by Vandana Shiva), if there is still a place for the specialisation that is so central to monetary economics.

Certainly the lack of connection between theory and practice has been one of the major symptoms of cultural breakdown and a collective loss of intelligence, effectively, because there [aren’t] the feedback loops directly back to theory from practice. And practice has become more hypnotic; a machine-like behaviour because there’s not any thinking going on associated with it. The more it becomes mechanised and under speed and pressure within a monetary economic model, then there’s no place for any of that musing associated with theory. This separation of theory and practice is a primary form of specialisation pursued in the name of efficiency. It has now got to a point where it has created blindness, because there are not the feedback loops that create interplay.

Despite all the experimentation in the last forty years, permaculture is one of the few movements or concepts to come out of the 1970s that actively works towards creating non-polluting social systems by taking a generalist approach to life contiguous with Indigenous knowledges and patterns of experience. Of course specialisation (division of labour) and the advent of money have shared histories. Permaculture, on the other hand, moves away from that particular relationship of knowledge to economy and argues that being skilled and having knowledge across a wide range of fields, especially relating to land, strengthens household and community economies. In other words permaculture demands we foreground ecological knowledges like our ancestors once did, and thus reclaim, as David Fleming puts it, a ‘lean logic’.

Permaculture is thus a natural critic of the capitalist principle of fabricating demand (and thus fabricating unnecessary supply) as it bases its systems on ecological functioning ahead of human desire. It is true that money’s exactly calculated value is efficient, but then constructing the illusion of demand and therefore debt, capitalism’s other great agenda, instantly negates this efficiency creating instead aggregating waste. By mixing human desire with capital ideology and fossil fuels we have enabled tremendous complexity, which has in turn accrued an ecological debt for which subsequent generations will pay dearly. In Life Without Money Nelson and Timmerman ask: ‘How many contemporary developments and proposals actually make little social, cultural or environmental sense but are assessed as sensible money-making ventures?’ Contrary to its own propaganda, there is nothing lean or efficient about progress-capitalism. Holmgren has suggested many times that instead of endlessly building barely occupied houses we need to retrofit the suburbs and turn them from settlements of pollution into ecological systems. The home mortgage (debt until death, or life sentence, taken from the Latin meaning ‘contract til death’) or the debt we owe to the landlord each week is at the heart of our monetary system. Waste, debt and private property are synonymous with capital systems and all three work relentlessly against the agency of humans to function ecologically.

Anthropologist and debt-activist David Graeber, in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, suggests that the moral and cultural challenges of debt are equally important for us to focus on if we are to understand how the monetary economy works: ‘Consumer debt is the lifeblood of our economy. All modern nation-states are built on deficit spending’. Exorcising debt lies at the heart of ridding society of the prime place of money, but this notion is often disabled by the strange but nonetheless common view that we have to pay off our debts regardless of the immoral ways they have come to burden us. This is especially true when it comes to property. Graeber recounts the popular myth about money’s origins as presented by economists since Adam Smith:

“We teach it to children in schoolbooks and museums. Everybody knows it. ‘Once upon a time, there was barter. It was difficult. So people invented money. Then came the development of banking and credit.’ It all forms a perfectly simple, straightforward progression, a process of increasing sophistication and abstraction that has carried humanity, logically and inexorably, from the Stone Age exchange of mastodon tusks to stock markets, hedge funds, and securitized derivatives.”

Graeber goes on to debunk this myth of pre-monetary exchange, observing how in many cultures exchange was nuanced and calibrated to local resource availability, local skills and ceremony. In chapter six of Life Without Money, simply called ‘The Gift Economy’, sociologist Terry Leahy presents a case for why a gifting economy might move from ‘crazy anarchist delusion’ to pragmatic reality. He begins by making a defence of utopia: ‘Currently, utopian schemes have a tenuous legitimacy in the social sciences. [But] I defend utopian writing as no more fantastical than ideas underpinning every other social order’. In my recent discussion with Holmgren I asked him what relationships he saw between permaculture and utopian thought:

“[Bill] Mollison said we might be searching for the Garden of Eden, and why not? There’s always been an element in permaculture of utopian thinking. You could say it is even quite strong. I suppose for me the important thing that would distinguish it is living here now, reacting to whatever the situation is, wherever we find ourselves, and yet acting as though the world we imagine as functional, viable, possible, desirable, is actually happening.”

When I was speaking to Holmgren we were sitting in his forest garden accompanied by chickens and goats and food, medicine, fibre, fodder and fuel producing plants. Leahy brings Holmgren into his chapter quite early and notes some of the most crucial necessities for gift economies as they have worked in the past:

“Holmgren discusses classless societies as typically reliant for subsistence on crops gathered in different seasons from trees grown over a wide area. Wildernesses of classless societies are dominated by tree species useful to, and encouraged by, humans. A typical tactic in breaking the resistance of these societies has been to burn and fell these forests, forcing the population to depend on annual cereal crops that are easily controlled by armies and given and withheld by ruling classes and their enforcers.”

At public talks and casual meetings in the twin towns in which we both live, Holmgren and I, as well as others, have spoken about the importance of reimagining common land as community accessible and productive earth, and we have expressed this in a number of ways over the years. Holmgren has worked with his neighbouring community in Hepburn Springs to manage a wild urban space known to locals as Spring Creek, developing non-monetary, non-chemical and low-mechanical land management systems. He has worked on fire reduction systems and developed small-scale agro-forestry, food forestry and soil rebuilding strategies for an impoverished streamside ecology violated by the pursuit of gold in the nineteenth century. All this work over twenty years has been gifted and stands as a successful model in terms of non-monetary community-managed land. Similarly, in Daylesford I have worked with local gardeners and permaculture activists to establish the early stages of a community food system. We began with guerrilla gardening tactics on crown land to drive the democratic process until we had established (with long-term leases) three networked community gardens. Two more gardens are currently at design stage, including a ten-acre food forest at the local secondary college. We are also lobbying council to plant public fruit and nut street trees throughout the shire. This public food is not based on a private property model: there are no individual plots, the food is for everyone with the simple unpoliced ethic of ‘take food and return something later’ in the form of seeds, compost, labour, organisation, teaching or any other material or skill needed for this self-interested, community-sufficiency system to function.

According to Leahy, self-interest is a key component of a functioning gift economy, the term itself popularised by the Situationists who in turn borrowed it from French sociologist Marcel Mauss. Leahy builds on Mauss’ work:

“The gift economy is a reversal of key aspects of capitalism and class societies in general. A selfish interest operates in the gift economy. Gifting can be a self-centred desire for pleasure, a way to enjoy social prestige and affection. Producing focuses on use for oneself or known others, whether locals, kin or friends … The structure pays off as a total system to benefit all of us. Gifts are necessary for everyone to live well. It is treasured as a system that works better than alternatives, which have already been tried with such calamitous effects.”


Mauss’ essay The Gift (1923) has influenced thinkers of alternative exchange models for nearly a century, but in truth his work really just makes what Indigenous peoples have known all along more palatable, more Western. The first inhabitants local to where Holmgren and I live, the Jaara Jaara―the only demonstrably ecological culture to have lived in the area―practised such a self-interested gift economy with neighbouring groups, temporarily giving access to their land’s resources for the exchange of gifts at a ceremony known as the tanderrum, which translates as ‘freedom of the bush’. The Gunwinggu people of Western Arnhem Land call their ceremonial barter dzamalag. However, it is fairly clear that gift or barter exchange with kin and within the tribe was not exercised as resources were simply shared without register. Graeber states that barter across most traditional societies only took place ‘between strangers, even enemies’, which is backed up by escaped convict William Buckley’s ghost written account of his thirty plus years living with Kulin nation people in pre-colonial Victoria.

The models for non-monetary economies are ancient in this country, having only had a short interruption in recent years, since 1788. Within an Aboriginal economic system, tied to tribal law, the land is not poisoned, eroded, mined or depleted. It was certainly not savaged to the point that salinity, rising temperatures, failing river ecologies, catastrophic bushfires, increased flooding or widespread social dysfunction. Economic historian, Tony Dingle, writes that Australian Aborigines:

“… were knowledgeable and sophisticated managers of resources who were able to live off the land with a minimum of effort. They possessed ample time to enjoy a full and satisfying spiritual, ceremonial and social life once their food needs were satisfied. Nevertheless, the pattern of their lives was so far removed from the experience of anyone living in a modern industrial society that a considerable effort of imaginative understanding is needed to bridge the gap.”

Implementing change is extremely difficult while we are indebted to the global pool of money. This is where the mainstream environmental movement has largely failed; it brushes the edges of the problem without addressing the centre. Change is more possible to implement at a grass roots level if we live without debt; have access to land for developing perennial food systems; and many locals, friends and kin are leading similar lives close by. Within networks of local self-interest and gift exchange we don’t overshoot the resources of the land and we can actually help replenish it.

Transition to fair and sustainable economies is expressing itself in many forms around the world today, as capital ideology is further understood as being redundant for the centuries ahead. News items like this are becoming increasingly common:

“Earlier this month, planners broke ground in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood for what will be the nation’s largest free and open edible landscape, the Beacon Food Forest, a project three years in the making. Established on the notion that permaculture infrastructure brings about more sustainable communities and ways of thinking, local agriculturists formed the group Friends of the Food Forest to help realize the dream of creating a public space where food could be grown and shared.”

The relationship between self-interest and sharing in a project such as this, and indeed the one my family is involved in through our community food networks, is interesting to study. Typically, ‘self-interest’ as a pejorative expression has belonged to anthropocentric capital systems―resources are no longer shared but horded individualistically. Initially agriculture, as a precursor development to a monetary economy, created anxiety around food supply as people became sedentary and later urbanised and food commons were eradicated. Work dominates agricultural settlements whereas for ecologically nuanced cultures obtaining food is often recreational and work plays a much less significant role in life. Ill-health (bodily, psychological and environmental) is synonymous with ideologies or behaviours that repress pleasure, devalue natural systems and foreground technology and labour. Food and energy commodities become ensnaring devices to lock people into stultifying work for monetary exchange. A by-product of this unhappiness is often drug addiction, be that sugar, caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol and other less widespread drugs that have been made illegal. These drugs used to excess are central to the monetary economy. They are, in fact, what helps to drive it.

Progress capitalism is a monumental interruption to life. It is designed to disempower the majority of people in the world and ensnare an educated minority with the promise that with hard (ecologically destructive) work, moderated with uppers and downers, one can ride with an elite, or at least share in some of their spoils.

As capital ideologues see the threat of replacement, harsh new laws that have the potential to shut down independent food systems―community food gardens, food coops and farmer’s markets―are currently being discussed or implemented in countries such as New Zealand and various US states. The proposed new food Bill in New Zealand, a new law replacing the Food Act 1981 that is currently before Parliament, ‘will apply to individuals and businesses which sell or supply food in exchange for payment―including food that is bartered, donated or given as a trade sample in the course of business’. Only food grown at home is exempt from this Bill, which evidently aims to attack non-monetary community food systems much in the same way as the cost of insurance coverage and risk assessment often cancels out grassroots activities in local neighbourhoods. It is another layer of bureaucracy that can disable the motivation for real change and the motivation for people to work together to dismantle forms of life that are polluting and destructive. These laws have been proposed or engineered by neoliberal advocates for multinational seed and chemical companies like Monsanto to make sure that seed-saving gift economy utopias can’t spread. While this is disturbing, it also demonstrates the power of such local movements around the world at present. Movements that are making significant social changes, becoming unindebted or refusing to sign up for debt, and are re-establishing household and community economies not only build greater resilience to collapsing global money markets but, importantly, attend to the crises of pollution which progress capitalist countries talk endlessly about but do nothing to seriously curb.

The opportunities for reclaiming widespread ecological common sense, long lost to capital and colonising hegemonies, determines that life without money may not be the solution for our certain path of energy descent and climate chaos. Nevertheless it is a hardy response to composting entitlement and regaining material resilience, which is better understood by those who have long practised a locavore economy based on gifts and ecological knowledges. In my conversation with Holmgren I asked him whether he sees permaculture as a subtle transformation from or potentially a replacement of capitalism.

I think the problem that permaculture is attempting to address is bigger than capitalism. I wouldn’t put it on the same level as Marxism trying to redress the deep structural problems of capitalism. In Marxism there is still this belief that humans create wealth, rather than nature creating wealth. So in that sense I would see both Marxist and capitalist ideologies still coming out of the Enlightenment project that says we create our own realities. Now, to an extent, that’s true. Humans have always done that. The power of the mind and the way we appreciate the environment around us, and the way we give meaning to things, and all of that has always been so central for humanity as a species. But the issue of the material basis for existence is really a problem of limits to growth―so it makes little difference whether we are talking about capitalist models of material growth or another ideology. Until we understand the limits of the living systems that sustain us we have a serious problem.

Bearing Holmgren’s point in mind, it seems evident that without addressing the systemic links between capital and its offspring―over-supply, globalised pollution, social inequality and injustice, destruction of Indigenous peoples, diversity loss, privatising the Commons, exploitation of workers and ecologies―everything we do remains a band aid.

One of the things permaculture aims to achieve is to make economics a science again contiguous with Aboriginal economics pre-colonisation, based on the limits of the land. I recently spoke with a community friend who had just starting working with the organisation Beyond Zero Emissions and asked him whether obtaining zero emissions within an economy of capital was at all achievable. He said that if we move to 100 per cent renewables it would be possible, but I argued that it is not possible to be non-polluters within capital frameworks regardless of what energy systems we employ because capital ideology demands unnecessary supply, with which he agreed. Not surprisingly, there is nothing on the Beyond Zero Emissions website or in any of their literature that talks about economics beyond capital. As Leahy puts it in his criticisms of mainstream environmentalism, they ‘criticise capitalists’ greed and ordinary peoples’ selfish ignorant consumerism, believing the way forward is to spread alternative economic structures within capitalism’.

In the final chapter of Life Without Money the contributing editors finish with an outline of what an alternative economy might look like:

“To achieve local collective sufficiency, people would need to take over the use rights and responsibilities for the catchment landscapes that substantially support them. Local, community-based forms of living, producing and exchanging that emphasise communal sufficiency are the most environmentally friendly because they minimise energy and resources otherwise wasted on transport and economise through providing directly for most daily needs.”

This suggests, in effect, a model similar to Indigenous economies and permaculture systems worldwide. There is the ever-troubling issue of private property (which can in part be addressed by reimagining a commons through the guerrilla tactics of land claiming for ecological food and energy production), but we don’t have to wait to compost property relations in order to begin our transitions. If we are growing productive, biologically complex, mycorrhizal-rich soils through composting and non-till gardening, pissing into pineneedle-lined buckets and emptying the precious nutrients mixed with water around the food plants and trees that are growing in our household’s garden, balcony or community’s food forest; if we plant public nut trees and keep chickens and take full accountability for their lives as ecological and ethical protein sources; if we have access to renewable fuel such as gleaned firewood or methane gas from our household’s excrement; if we have dug passive water harvesting swales to deep feed our soils to get them through summer with minimal watering; if we have stopped driving a car (the average cost of owning a car in Australia, including wear and tear, depreciation, petrol, fines and licenses, is over $12,000pa); if we have cleared the debts we owe in the capital system; if we have given up the polluting idea that the world’s our oyster and cease indulging in industrialised travel; if we give up the belief that having children requires us to get more paid work to pay for endless polluting products including bigger cars; if we give up the bourgeois ideals of polluting gift products; if we give up trying to ‘manage’ environments with diesel machines and glysophate chemicals; if we stop supporting supermarkets which are anti-ecological food depositories, and replace all these things and much more step-by-step over time with either nothing or a local non-polluting alternative, then life without money, or with much less money, is slowly possible. And given the relationship money has to pollution – the less we earn, the less we pollute.


T. Dingle, Aboriginal Economy, 1st edn, Melbourne, McPhee Gribble, 1988; 2nd edn, Ringwood, Penguin Books, 1991.

D. Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Brooklyn , Melville House, 2011.

S. Messenger, ‘Seattle to Create Nation’s Largest Public Food Forest’, <>.

J. Morgan, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 1st edn, Hobart, Archibald MacDougal, 1852; 2nd edn, with an introduction and notes by C. E. Sayers, 1967.

A. Nelson and F. Timmerman, Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies, London, Pluto Press, 2011.

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